Making New Connections Between Health and Community

The cover of the most recent SHELTERFORCE, an industry journal published by the National Housing Institute, asks “Are our neighborhoods making us sick?”  Good question, but more important is the fact that community developers are starting to focus on the inter-relatedness of what we do to improve neighborhoods and communities and the health of people who live in them.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, following the lead of other Federal Reserves around the country, is elevating this discussion locally this fall.  Some of the voices from previous Fed sponsored conferences can be found on a video on the San Francisco Fed’s Healthy Communities website. Compelling statements about the state we’re in as a nation.  What’s also remarkable is how the sectors of health care, public health, housing, and community development are talking across their respective expertise to find mutually beneficial solutions to reduce health disparities and improve outcomes for people.

Taken separately, these aren’t exactly new conversations in either sector.  Public health advocates and experts have been studying “social determinants of health” for some time.  A growing body of research is showing that a person’s zip code is more important than his or her genetic code for predicting morbidity and mortality.  On the other side, the community development industry has been seeking improvements in the physical development of housing and other facilities, creating safer more walkable neighborhoods, leveraging a variety of transportation choices, creating access to green space and healthy food options and more.

Personally, I’ve been impressed by the partnership Allina Hospitals and Clinics has fostered with residents of the Phillips community in South Minneapolis.  The Backyard Initiative is an innovative resident-driven health initiative that has been supported by Allina and the Cultural Wellness Center.  It is rooted in deep community engagement, which in many ways was a risk for both the community and Allina as they attempted to develop more effective working relationships and foster health improvements for and within the community.  To the credit of both sides of the table, there has been safe space for people to participate in ways that are meaningful to their own lives.  A Community Commission on Health and a range of Citizen Health Action Teams (CHATs) have been formed over the past few years and a recent evaluation of these structures are starting to show promising results.

Coupling this kind of resident participation in the health arena with the visible and economic change in neighborhoods provided by community developers could be just the connection we’re looking for as a region–and nation–seeking to improve health and reduce costs in health care.  And, we’d create healthier, more vibrant communities at the same time.